Gender Scripts

Source: Courtesy of Snapwire

In a previous article, I discussed research that I had conducted on first dates, which highlighted gender differences when it comes to perceptions of how successful a date was. Being that gender differences are still so prevalent in early dating, this topic warrants further discussion.

Gender Scripts

A great deal of the gender differences that are observed during first dates are a result of sexual scripts. Gender scripts give people control over a situation, as a result of enabling them to fall into patterned responses (Rose & Frieze, 1993). Many traditional rules of courtship put men in the seat of authority (Guarerholz & Serpe, 1985, as cited in Rose & Frieze, 1993). For example, men tend to enact proactive power, in which they initiate sexual activity, whereas women use reactive power, which involves either accepting or rejecting the initiators’ attempts (Guarerholz & Serpe, 1985, as cited in Rose & Frieze, 1993).

Rose and Frieze (1993) conducted a study with a largely Caucasian sample consisting of 74 women and 61 men from a Midwestern public university to examine gender differences during first dates. Participants were told to list 20 action or events that would occur during a first date (with a hypothetical person of the same sex), as well as to describe their most recent first date.

Rose and Frieze (1993) noted the strong occurrence of gender typing in first date scenarios. Women’s scripts were much more reactive (i.e., evaluate the date), and men’s were much more proactive (i.e., initiate sexual activity, make out). Specifically, men were the ones who planned the date, controlled the public domain (i.e., opening doors), and initiated sexual contact. Females were much more concerned with the private domain (i.e., her appearance). While this study was from the early 90s, it demonstrates that people have a clear picture of how a date unfolds and what behaviors should occur.

More recent research has sought to determine how dating scripts influence individuals’ behavior when entering into a relationship. In a study conducted by McCarty and Kelly (2015), the researchers examined a sample of 176 undergraduates from the Midwest who read gender stereotypic, gender counter-stereotypic, or an egalitarian vignette about a hypothetical couple. The researchers predicted that participants would rate targets in gender stereotypic dates as more appropriate, warm, and competent than those in gender counter-stereotypic dates.

The behaviors of the targets were manipulated in the vignettes. In the gender stereotypic condition, the male engaged in seven chivalrous behaviors, such as driving to pick the date up, paying the bill, etc. In the gender counter-stereotypic condition, the woman engaged in these chivalrous behaviors, all except pulling out the chair and offering a jacket, so as not to arouse suspicion of the manipulation.

Results supported the researchers’ hypotheses and demonstrated that gender stereotypic dates were rated more positively than gender counter-stereotypic dates. The man in egalitarian and gender counter-stereotypic dating scenarios was rated negatively in terms of warmth, competence, and appropriateness, but was rated as more competent, warm, and appropriate than the woman in the gender stereotypic condition. Therefore, it was shown that men are supposed to play a specific role in a date, and when the script is violated, the perceptions of him are not as favorable.

Additional research has examined specific behaviors that occur on the first date. To take a look at payment arrangements, a study conducted by Jaramillo-Sierra and Allen (2013) examined narratives written by 34 male college students. They were given an extra credit assignment to write a response regarding payment in dating and romantic relationships. Eighty-five percent of the narratives demonstrated that they felt men should pay for all of the expenses incurred during the first date, as well as those during the initial dating period. Three main explanations were given for this belief: giving a good impression, showing they care, and acting in a socially acceptable manner.

The dating script itself may not be the only impetus for people to act in gender stereotypical ways; the events that occur on the date, or emotions aroused during the date, may also play a role. Vogel, Wester, Heesacker, and Madon (2003) hypothesized that people behave in gender stereotypical ways when they are emotionally vulnerable, or when they are more likely to have their feelings hurt and/or experience rejection. The researchers based their reasoning on the social role theory, which posits that women and men conform to gender stereotypes due to the need to act in accordance with their roles (Eagly, 1987, as cited in Vogel et al., 2003).  In their study, 59 dating couples from a large Southeastern university were assigned to either a high or low emotionally vulnerable discussion. In order assess the couples’ behaviors, the researchers examined the following dimensions: emotional expressiveness, emotional restriction, demand behaviors, and withdraw behaviors.

The couples’ responses to the Difficulty of Relationship Issues Questionnaire (DRIQ; Vogel, Wester, et al., 1999, as cited in Vogel et al., 2003) were used to determine the ease with which various topics were discussed (i.e., needs in the relationship). After this, the researchers were able to manipulate emotional vulnerability as a result of picking a topic that both members perceived of as easy (low emotional vulnerability topic) or both perceived of as difficult to discuss (high emotional vulnerability topic). Research assistants, blind to the experimental conditions, used a global rating system to code couples’ behaviors in terms of the four aforementioned behaviors.

Results demonstrated that difficult topics elicited more emotional vulnerability among the couples than easy topics. Those who discussed an emotionally easy topic were less emotionally vulnerable than those who discussed a difficult topic. Those who discussed difficult topics were less emotionally expressive than those who discussed an easy topic. Within those assigned to an easy topic, emotional expressiveness did not differ between men and women. Within those assigned to difficult topics, women were more emotionally expressive than men. Interestingly, an influence as a result of gender was shown for expressiveness within the difficult topic condition. For the emotionally difficult topic condition, men were both more likely to exhibit restricted affect and engage in more withdrawal behavior.

Overall, it was shown that the behaviors of males and females aligned with gender stereotypical patterns when discussing difficult topics, but not with emotionally easy ones. This may be a result of social pressures, in that males experience pressure to suppress their emotions, while women feel pressure to express them.


The research presented here demonstrates that when it comes to dating (in heterosexual relationships), we still rely on scripts that largely differ for males and females. These scripts should continue to be explored, especially with regard to how our perceptions of what we should do on a date relate to/differ from the actual behaviors enacted on a date.


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